Like so many interesting people, I met Lia Ditton over Twitter (where I also met my fiancé). Lia is a sailor, engineer and an artist who uses technology in rather brilliant ways. She truly takes "simply messing about on boats", one of the most famous lines from The Wind in the Willows, to the next level.
While editing an outdoors adventure magazine a few years back, I interviewed many famous British sailors including Dame Ellen MacArthur, Dee Caffari, Sir Robin Knox-Johnston, but I was immediately struck by 31-year-old London-born Lia because she is uniquely an artist and sailor mingled in equal parts. She has the practicality and physicality of someone who has sailed and rowed across the Atlantic, but the inner calling to create. She tells me it runs in the family. "My grandfather was a portrait artist... [and] all the Dittons sailed." But the seeds of Lia's own future were sown in an escape to Asia:
"I studied fine art in the era where Charles Saatchi was God and being nominated for the Turner Prize was the highest accolade. The BritPop 90s left me entirely disillusioned with the materialistic turn that modern art was taking," Lia writes to me to explain, "In the final term of my first year at London’s Chelsea College of Art, I orchestrated a stone-carving trip to India to rediscover quintessential sculpture." A six-month trip around India became a year-long trip taking in Asia, the Maldives, Eritrea, Sudan and Egypt. She returned transformed, and with a taste for the adventure ocean expeditions could offer. She tells me:
"Much to the chagrin of my family, I attempted to become a professional sailor. As a fit 60kg, I was a welcome addition to the 18 plus male teams as the spinnaker packer and spent a lot of time below decks as the boat thumped upwind to the next mark. But as we hurtled downwind (hopefully with the spinnaker seamlessly flying), the boat resonating like a polished flute blown by quivering lips, I knew that single-handed was the only way to ever drive. Caught up in the beauty of the moment, I wasn’t really interested in winning or being the first. I just wanted to know what it was like to take hold of the wheel that drove the juggernaut, surfing waves in succession, etching musical notes from carbon fibre as it went."
I ask Lia how her experiences on the seas have inspired her art? She replies:
"Being surrounded by water and water only, out of sight of land, alone, in the throes of an ocean is something that very few people can comprehend and in any case everytime it’s different. My feeling about art is that it’s one person’s take on the world. Art is my way of communicating those experiences or elements of those experiences in a way that may, on some level, be understood."
In some small way, I identified with Lia's attraction to the ocean. I spent two long summers as a dinghy sailing and windsurfing instructor. This was before I really knew I loved science. But I was teaching it: The physics of the way that sails work and windsurfing boards or skiffs plane, how to counteract the forces in the sail, how it is possible to sail upwind; the biology of sunburn, jellyfish sting and mosquito bite infection; as for chemistry, too much pomada (a lemonade and gin drink) gets you drunk as an old sea dog.
I don't think I've ever felt more alive, more visceral, then I did on the water. I can virtually smell the sea just looking at Lia's pictures on Flickr. On a good day's sailing or windsurfing, I felt 'in the zone'. In Jeff Warren's fantastic book The Head Trip, his verdict is that 'the zone' is: "absolute integration of body and mind, spiritual experience for the practised Everyman." It's the kind of feeling when everything is going right (most of the time it doesn't - then it's chalked down to 'practise'), everything is in perfect harmony, you are quietly confident.
Lia reveals: "Sailing puts me ‘in the zone’ for art! I don’t believe in God, but I do believe in Mother Nature. I feel very much at peace at sea, even piloting a ship through a storm. This is my think tank. The place of my inspiration. As William Turner reputedly had himself tied to the rail of a fishing trawler in rough weather, in order to experience the subject of his paintings, so I set off across the Atlantic to explore the nature of absolute solitude and the question, ‘what is it like to be completely and utterly alone?!’ "
Lia has managed to successfully combine a life of solo adventure and racing on the ocean with a degree in fine art and popular acclaim for her work. "I set out to marry my two passions; to strike out in all my duality, as an artist whose medium was sailing," Lia tells me, "I began that journey by returning to Chelsea to finish my degree, as an entrant in the Faraday-Mill OSTAR single-handed transatlantic race from England to America."
In 2005 Lia was the youngest competitor and the only woman to complete the transatlantic race, which took 28 days in a 40ft-long trimaran. After this, Lia went back to art school to finish off her degree, and in June 2006 spent 28 days living onboard her trimaran re-living the experience of her transatlantic race, even down to the details of what she ate and how she slept. This feat of confinement in the courtyard of the Chelsea College of Art won Lia the tag “David Blaine meets EllenMcArthur” from BBC radio DJ Simon Mayo.
Lia wrote on her blog at the time: "With 120 litres of drinking water, 74 packets of instant add-water meals and a sleeping bag, I am entirely self-sufficient. As the breeze gusts, funnelled between the Tate Britain and the Chelsea College of Art and Design buildings, I am subjected to the same rigours - sails up and down, trimmed this way and that in a performance artwork that streams 24/7 to my website and big screens at Galerie Emourlot in New York. I have exchanged the Atlantic Ocean for a sea of people - visitors from near and faraway shores.”
Her installation, Absolute Solitude: One Woman, One Boat, was about revealing what solo sailing involves and a re-enactment of loneliness. Although, with 1,000 visitors to the 'interactive' exhibit, Lia had plenty of people to speak with.
Getting the trimaran to the space near Tate Britain was a feat in itself. It took seven months of meticulous planning and input from a team of 36 people so the trimaran could be sailed up the Thames and hauled into the courtyard. Permission was needed from 15 different government bodies, including the permission to close four lanes of traffic on Vauxhall Bridge for 12 minutes.
Following this, Lia's next big project was creating an artwork out of a yacht by penning her thoughts and feelings on the walls, during a solo race, the Route de Rhum 2006. The boat was then going to be sliced in half to display the guts of both the vessel and Lia's eviscerated thoughts. A bit of a departure from the satellite phone or at-sea blog, then.
I asked Lia why she wrote this on-board diary on her walls and what has happened to the yacht now? The whole story as Lia related it is fascinating, so I've included all of it:
"I entered the race with the sole intention of writing my journal of the experience on the inside skin of the vessel. At the time I was fascinated by Bachelard’s ideas on the “Poetics of Space” - our relationship with the buildings we live in. Finance took a miraculous four days to procure, thanks to a group of entrepreneurial individuals who bought into the idea of the boat being cut in half in order to present the diary as two life-sized half hulls. The half hulls – complete with mast and keel halves would then go on tour to a series of galleries including MOMA Rio.
I could not have predicted what actually transpired. By day 19 (of the 23 day crossing) I stopped writing on the cabin interior. I realized that I was choosing to sleep cold and damp outside, rather than live in the vestibule of yesterday’s mind, sharing the same space with the day before yesterday’s nightmares and fears: The penned euphoric highs and abysmal lows of single-handed sailing.
Meanwhile… outside of my microcosm, my company of investors were being bought up by the dominant shareholder and regretfully by arrival in Guadeloupe any right to the boat (or the diary) was no longer mine. The boat was still going to be sliced in half and still destined to be a travelling exhibit… only without me. In a strange twist of fate, the skipper who endeavoured to sail the boat from the Caribbean to the shipyard in North America became deliriously seasick and abandoned the vessel, when a cruise ship came to his mayday. Unfortunately the boat was dismasted (and probably holed) in the process and has not been seen since."
This just shows you what precarious worlds sailing and art are. And indeed, it hints at the precariousness of our mental stability, as well as the courage it takes to face the elements alone. So what's next for the intrepid sailor-artist?
Lia is currently working as an engineer on a boat out in Rhode Island in the US, with the aim to garner the necessary sea time to become a qualified MCA Y4 licensed marine engineer. I ask about how it feels to be a woman in such a male-dominated industry? Lia says: "The crew agency, which put me forward for my current position as an engineer on a 100ft jet boat, said that they only know of five female engineers working professionally on superyachts around the world. When I first started studying marine engineering three years ago, everyone in my class managed to get an apprenticeship except me. Having since rowed the Atlantic, whatever barrier stood in my way then seems to have dissolved." Her advice for young women is: "If you’re driven to do it, ignore the naysayers; follow your gut and stick to your own path!"
Lia is also working on a remarkable project to create music from sailing boats. You can hear her talk about her conception of the project on YouTube. The experimental digital music is synthesised and modulated from the movements of marine electronic equipment, which are hooked up to an Open Boat Orchestra box. Lia has worked to make her idea come to life with ex-Duran Duran sound engineer, Mark Ty-Wharton. See them test the principle in the this video.
Lia writes that: "The Open Boat Orchestra is about celebrating our experience of the sea, through the universal language of music." - and it seems to work well, in "in concert" trials. The project is on hold, waiting for development money.
But engineering and inventing ways to make music from sailing aren't all. Lia is also due to start a Masters in Professional Writing starting in October at Falmouth University, UK. She says: "It's time to tell my story". I, for one, can't wait to read it.